Isn’t being a mother the most wonderful thing you’ve ever done? That woman asked me on the phone. Well no -I answered, holding back tears- In fact I feel sad and exhausted -I said covering my mouth to stop myself before it was too late-.
— The maternal knot
If there is an experience crossed by guilt, that is motherhood. The constant doubt about whether what you do and how you do it will be right and good for your offspring, the feeling of not reaching everything, the anguish because what you feel does not correspond to what you are supposed to feel, the knot in your stomach because you get on a plane and you have a six-year-old son and maybe you shouldn’t, the certainty that you take care of yourself as best you can but maybe not as you would like… Everything leads to guilt.
“For not being the perfect mother you thought, for not having enough patience, for not breastfeeding or for giving it too long, for not taking piano lessons at the age of three, for co-sleeping, for not spending enough time with them or because you dedicate too much time with them when you would like to dedicate time to a project that excites you, because you have decided to take a trip, because you have impure thoughts and want to run away… Whatever you do is your fault”, summarizes Laura Baena, founder of the MalasMadres Club.
This Sunday is Mother’s Day, but it could be Guilt Day: the excitement seems almost intrinsic to being a mother, while it doesn’t seem to cut across the parenting experience in the same way. Why? “There is a patriarchal imperative that makes mothers primarily responsible for their children, moreover, that imperative establishes that the good mother puts the children ahead of herself. The good mother is, therefore, a sacrifice, to sacrifice herself for her children, which is why she is also so revered on Mother’s Day”, explains the sociologist Constanza Tobio. It is not difficult these days to find advertisements and promotions that, with the intention of praising mothers, advocate dedication and sacrifice for others.
Beatriz Gimeno, feminist writer and deputy for Podemos in the Madrid Assembly, points out that the maternal institution is set up like this so that we cannot free ourselves from guilt: “Guilt comes to you if you do it one way or if you do it the other way around. , whether you’re very protective or not, there’s no way to do it right.” In contrast, the role of the father “does not have fixed limits, it has a very flexible role that anyone can adapt to and do well.” “It takes little to be able to be a good father, on the other hand it is impossible to be a good mother and when you are not, you are guilty,” she says.
Gimeno herself was assailed by a kind of retroactive guilt. Although she lived the first years of her son quite free of guilt, her research to write about motherhood and breastfeeding led her to meet and listen to women with experiences very different from hers “and some guilt ended up being projected on me”. “When I was almost 60 years old and my son was 30 and something, I began to wonder if he had done things wrong,” she admits.
“forms of erosion”
Journalist Diana Olivar has just published ‘Precarious Maternities’ (Arpa), in which she dedicates an entire chapter to guilt. She calls them “erosion forms.” For example, for not being able to hold their spirits, for not being able to follow their vital rhythms, guilt for what they are not doing (playing, having fun, doing crafts…), or guilt for ambivalence, that is, for experience feelings as opposite as tenderness and anger, resentment and satisfaction, something that Adrienne Rich already talked about in We are born of women (Dream Traffickers).
Oliver also has his own list of maternal faults. “I feel guilty especially when I know that I am not doing things with my children as I would like. And within that “as I would like” there are actually other things: there is a lot of self-demand, but also external. And there are also some circumstances and a context that do not always accompany. I think of moments that cause me enormous guilt: hardly ever playing with my children; always having to do something and not being able to fully enjoy it; be permanently out of stock; the bad mood produced by exhaustion, insomnia and worries; often not understanding what they need; the constant ambivalence; shout at; live with that feeling of doing everything by halves; be with them but not be. I have felt guilty even to feel guilty”.
Ibone Olza is a psychiatrist and author of several books, the last mother’s word. She says that as a psychiatrist, when she became a mother she became aware of how “medicine in general and psychiatry in particular” blamed mothers for “almost everything that happens to their children.” “In child psychiatry, it was especially striking how parents almost never accompanied their children to consultations and, however, a problem was always found in the mothers, not in the fathers”. Olza admits to having felt guilty until one of her children repeated a school year or got sick, and other people have even blamed her for having lice.
Esther Vivas published a few years ago disobedient mom, a book that has reached dozens of countries. Guilt, says Vivas, accompanies us as mothers because it has to do with the ideal of a good mother in the system in which we live: “Denied and sacrificed, without a life of her own, who cannot fail or make mistakes, always available to her children… that at the same time now lives with the superwoman that reaches everything, with the perfect normative body, always available for employment”. “This ideal in which we see ourselves does not respond to the real experience of women who are mothers and makes us feel guilty. Being a mother implies failing, making mistakes, it implies ambivalence…”, she adds.
Talking about our experiences, politicizing motherhood and guilt can help free us from it, “because we understand that it has to do with this patriarchal system and it helps us understand that the problem is not us,” says Vivas. Ibone Olza agrees: “When we see and understand how the patriarchal society is cruel to motherhood, that relieves us of guilt.”
For Laura Baena, connecting blame with the system is also part of the solution. Freeing ourselves from guilt implies “breaking unwritten rules”, daring to be the mother that we want to be, but also claiming a new social model of motherhood, care and co-responsibility. “We need co-responsibility, co-responsible parents who do the nice tasks and the less nice ones, those that are seen and those that are not, that assume mental load… But we also need public policies and political commitment, that motherhood is economically and socially valued” , affirms the founder of MalasMadres, who recalls that the love of a mother is questioned depending on the type of mother she is.
Sociologist Constanza Tobio also sees a clear line of action in care and co-responsibility: “Reconciliation is an unresolved problem and has a lot to do with guilt. Until the shared care of the child population by women, men, families and the State is assumed, guilt will continue to weigh on mothers as a diffuse feeling.
Guilt assails me as I finish writing this article. My son is in the living room playing and demanding my attention, and I type and yell “I’m coming now”, while I ponder his future traumas. We can always tell them: we were the mothers we wanted but, above all, the ones we could.